KUWAIT CITY (AP) _ U.S. Army officers who have been monitoring Kuwait’s security forces worry that their imminent withdrawal will expose Palestinians and others to injustice and brutality in the courts and on the streets.
The officers fear that once they leave, the Kuwaiti army, police and rogue elements of both forces could terrorize elements of Kuwait’s population, especially Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Iraq’s occupying army.
They are also afraid that the trials of more than 500 prisoners will be unfair unless Kuwait starts taking seriously the U.S. calls for due process.
″Concerned? You bet we are,″ said Lt. Col. Robert Feidler, a reservist from the Judge Advocate General’s office who is advising Kuwait’s Ministry of Justice.
″Make me king for a day and I’ll fix it,″ said Col. Ron Smith, a former prosecutor who works with Kuwait’s security forces. ″But that won’t happen, so we’re getting out.″
So far, two members of Feidler’s three-member team have left Kuwait. Smith’s task force is scheduled to depart Kuwait this week.
The officers’ concerns are shared by Kuwait defense lawyers, Western aid workers and Palestinians.
Western diplomats say Kuwait’s volatile political situation compounds the problem. Kuwait’s government resigned March 19 and a new Cabinet has yet to be appointed.
Many Kuwaiti resistance fighters remain armed and want political change. Some resistance leaders have warned of violence if the government does not compromise.
″The Americans have been a very, very dissuasive influence on the Kuwaitis,″ said a senior official of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ mission to Kuwait, speaking on condition of anonymity. ″Once they go, we are worried that Kuwait will unravel.″
Attorney Najeeb al-Wagayan, who will be defending some suspected Iraqi collaborators, said he relies on Feidler to pressure Kuwaiti officials.
″When he’s gone, I don’t know who I’ll be able to go to,″ he said. ″Right now, there’s no way the trials can be fair.″
He said some suspects jailed for more than a month still are refused visits from family members or attorneys.
On Friday, Palestinian Jay Salameh said he was in his clothing shop when an armed Kuwaiti in military dress entered and tried to steal a pair of trousers. A U.S. soldier happened by, and the Kuwaiti left swiftly.
To Salameh, who was born in Kuwait, the experience summed up his worries about the future.
″Without the Americans, there’s nothing we’ll be able to do,″ said the 29-year-old University of Alabama graduate. ″Things could get really ugly.″
But U.S. officers say they can’t stay indefinitely.
″We’re not an occupying army,″ said Smith, a lawyer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from Stafford, Va. ″That’s not our job.″
Smith said his successes here have been mixed. Kuwait’s government rejected his proposal to train a military police unit of 4,000 Kuwaitis in the United States. Training programs conducted in Kuwait by U.S. police officers also have failed because the government appears uninterested, he said.
But he said he has made some headway. For weeks, Smith and his men went from one police station to another with the names of missing people, sometimes accompanied by relatives.
Finally, on Tuesday, the Kuwaiti army gave the U.S. Army a list of 547 prisoners it held. Kuwaiti officers acknowledged that as many as 400 more were being held by irregulars, Smith said.
Another U.S. success was persuading the Kuwaitis to transfer the detainees in the military prison into civilian hands. Smith and Feidler were informed of the decision Thursday, although the transfer has yet to occur.
″This is very good news,″ Feidler said. ″Some of the army soldiers are simply dangerous.″
On several occasions, Smith said the United States has stepped in to persuade Kuwaitis not to conduct sweeps through the Palestinian neighborhood of Hawally.
On the war crimes, Feidler said he has tried in vain for weeks to persuade the Kuwaitis to allow attorneys and relatives to visit the prisoners.
″We’ve been hammering the point to the Kuwaitis that the world is watching and that Kuwait shouldn’t start acting like the Iraqis just because they got their country back,″ he said.
The government hasn’t made a decision on visitation rights, said Hani al- Hamdan, Kuwait’s deputy attorney general. ″We are studying the problem.″
So far about 100 cases have been handed over to prosecutors, according to Awad al-Essa, a prosecutor. Pending charges include murder, burglary and rape, and trials could begin by late April, he said.
Feidler said the presence of military judges at the trials might hamper the ability of defense lawyers to present an adequate case. ″We keep telling the Kuwaitis that just because a crime was committed during wartime doesn’t mean it is a war crime,″ he said.